The 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers were already the greatest dynasty of the still-new Super Bowl era that began thirteen years earlier. The Steelers were the only team with three Super Bowl victories to their credit, and in ’79 they added another.
Terry Bradshaw was still at the height of his playing days, years away from being an annoying Fox-TV pregame commentator. Franco Harris was a powerful running back, and Rocky Bleier, a Vietnam war hero turned football player, chipped in valuable carries of his own. The receiving tandem of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth was one of the best in the game.
And we haven’t covered the offensive line, anchored by future Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, or the legendary “Steel Curtain” defense, with linebacker Jack Lambert, defensive back Mel Blount and a ferocious front four led by Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood. There was no reason to think the Steelers couldn’t go all the way again.
An overtime escape at New England, coming off a division title run of their own, to start the season keyed a 4-0 start. The second of those wins was the biggest. The old AFC Central division was the Steelers, Bengals and Browns, along with the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans). Houston had made the playoffs in ’78 and reached the AFC Championship Game behind running back Earl Campbell, who joined Dallas’ Tony Dorsett as the league’s bright young stars in the backfield.
Campbell had been shut down on an icy field in the previous years’ playoffs and on this September day, the Steel Curtain showed it wasn’t all about the weather. Campbell was held to 38 yards and Oiler quarterbacks Dan Pastorini and Gifford Nielsen were intercepted a combined five teams. Pittsburgh won 38-7 and sent a clear message about who the team to beat still was.
That Sunday the Steelers hung 51 points on the Cleveland Browns and beat their division foe in a shootout, but this win was sandwiched between road losses to the Philadelphia Eagles, a good team, and the Bengals, a not-very-good-team. At 5-2, there was no reason to hit the panic button, but Chuck Noll’s defending champs weren’t looking the part at this stage of the schedule.
Dallas came to Pittsburgh in late October for a Super Bowl rematch. The Steelers won it 14-3, thanks to a terrific running effort from Harris, while Dorsett was contained to 73 yards. Another big test came out in San Diego on November 18. The Chargers’ were challenging the Steelers for the top seed in the AFC playoffs and with quarterback Dan Fouts they had the ability to put a lot of points on the board in a hurry.
That’s what they did on this day, although the 35-7 Steeler loss was more about a terrible day from Bradshaw, who threw five interceptions, then it was about the Charger attack. In either case, San Diego now had the inside track to homefield advantage in January, a big deal for an offense that would likely be grounded in bad weather in the north.
The AFC Central was still up for grabs when Pittsburgh brought their 11-3 record to the Astrodome to face 10-4 Houston. The Steelers held the tiebreaker, but could avoid having to fight to the final week with a win in this Monday Night game. They didn’t get it. Campbell finally broke through against the Steel Curtain, rushing for 109 yards and that was the difference in a tight 20-17 Houston win.
Pittsburgh was still able to clinch the division the following week with a 12-4 record, but with the Chargers also at 12-4, it meant another possible trip west for the AFC Championship Game.
Before thinking about AFC Championship Game opponents, Pittsburgh had to get ready to play AFC East champion Miami. The Dolphins were only six years removed from their own glory days when they won three straight AFC titles, two straight Super Bowls, one of which produced the only perfect season of the Super Bowl era.
But while names like quarterback Bob Griese, running back Larry Csonka and offensive lineman Larry Little were familiar, the team wasn’t as good. At 10-6, it was a nice playoff-caliber club, but the Steelers were Super Bowl-caliber and they played like it.
Bradshaw was 21/30 for 230 yards, while the defense held Miami to 25 yards rushing. The final was 34-14 and based on what had happened the day before, Pittsburgh already knew they’d been spared a road trip. Houston’s safety Vernon Perry had intercepted Fouts four times, the Oilers pulled a 17-14 upset and were coming to the Steel City for an AFC Championship rematch.
The weather wasn’t icy and slick this time, but Campbell didn’t have much more luck running this year then he did the previous season. The Steelers held him to 15 yards on 17 carries. But this year’s Houston team didn’t roll over.
Houston had talent in other areas of their team, notably two excellent outside linebackers in Robert Brazile and Ted Washington, along with a very good secondary, as Fouts would attest to. Perry continued his astonishing postseason play by picking off Bradshaw and taking it 75 yards to the house to give Houston the early 7-0 lead. After the teams traded field goals, Bradshaw got in gear and rifled touchdown passes to tight end Bennie Cunningham and Stallworth to send Pittsburgh to the halftime with a 17-10 lead.
Houston was driving for the tying touchdown in the third quarter when the play by which this game is remembered took place. Pastorini lofted a third-down pass toward the back right corner of the end zone for tight end Mike Barber. He caught it, tried to drag both his feet and get them inbounds. Did he do it and maintain possession?
The officials conferred. As NBC, then the network of the AFC, showed repeated replays, even instant replay couldn’t tell anything conclusive. The ruling was an incomplete pass. Houston had to settle for a field goal. And even though there was a lot of game left, it all effectively ended there. Pittsburgh got a field goal of their own and then tacked on an insurance touchdown. They were going back to the Super Bowl, with a ticket to Pasadena.
There wouldn’t be a rematch with the Cowboys in Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach’s final year. As enticing as that sounded, top-seeded Dallas had been stunned by the 9-7 Los Angeles Rams in the divisional playoff on a tipped pass from Vince Ferragamo to Billy Waddy. The Rams then shut out Tampa Bay, who was the #2 seed, in an ugly 9-0 NFC title game.
Los Angeles had been a consistent contender throughout the 1970s and had a Super Bowl-worthy team several times, even if they kept coming up short. It’s ironic that the most mediocre of their 1970s playoff teams would be the one to make a Super Bowl.
Los Angeles still gave Pittsburgh fits. They scored an early touchdown, kept the Steeler offense under control and led 13-10 at half.
They would intercept Bradshaw three times before it was over, and an upset bigger than any Super Bowl game since Joe Willie Namath guaranteed the 18-point underdog Jets would beat the Baltimore Colts in 1968 seemed in the offing. Even when Pittsburgh reclaimed the lead at 17-13, the Rams came right back and scored on a halfback pass from Lawrence McCutcheon to Ron Smith.
One thing Bradshaw was doing was gunning the ball and his mistakes hadn’t made him gun shy. Trailing 19-17 and the game in the fourth quarter, he stepped back and rifled a deep post to John Stallworth. It was over the receiver’s wrong shoulder, but Stallworth reached back, caught it and stayed on the dead run into the end zone for a 73-yard scoring play.
It would be easy to say that play broke the Rams’ back, but the record says otherwise. Ferragamo led his own team right back down the field, but Lambert came up with an interception to kill the drive. Now it was Franco’s time to take over and Harris eventually plunged over from the 1-yard line for a clinching score in a 31-19 game.
Bradshaw’s 309 passing yards made him game MVP for the second straight year, but a heckuva case could be made for Stallworth, whose spectacular catch saved the game, or Lambert, who’d been in the middle of things all day on defense and made the key pick.
What mattered to the Steelers though is that they won their fourth Super Bowl before anyone else even got to three. The tradition has continued and with championships in 2005 and again in 2008, Pittsburgh is the only franchise with six rings.